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I, as an Indian, am often surprised when the Americans use the word Hindu, when they actually mean

  1. The country of India
  2. The Indian subcontinent
  3. The Hindi language (possibly)

whereas it should only refer to the Hindu religion, or Hinduism.

For example, there is the Hindu-German conspiracy of 1915. While most of the Indian conspirators may have been Hindu, it does not appear to have been religiously motivated.

An American cousin of mine wanted a 'Hindu Barbie' in a sari. It sounded inaccurate, at least to my years. Occasionally, I have heard an Indian accent being referred to as a 'Hindu accent'. To my ear, this sounds as ridiculous as an accent being referred to as, say, a Catholic accent, a Baptist accent, or a Jewish accent.

The British do not usually do this, but I did see an old (1930s) film where the actor claimed that a nonsense word was 'Hindu' for welcome.

What is the reason for this usage? I did hear one possible explanation. A friend of mine visiting South America took exception to this usage. Upon enquiring, he was told that the word 'Hindu' refers to 'Indian Indians', while 'Indian' refers to native South Americans.

Was this the case in the USA as well?

How common is this usage? Is it universal, or only among the poorly educated? Why don't people say South Asian, or Indian, or the subcontinent, depending on the context?

To be fair to the Americans, the words and phrases Hindu, Hinduism, India, Indus, Sindh, Sindhu, Hindi, Hindostan, Hindu Kush, etc all have the same origin.

However, non-Hindu South Asians, including Indians, and even some secular Hindus may be offended by such usage.

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    Anecdotally, in my experience in IT (where I've worked with many people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), generally people from South Asia are referred to as 'Indian' (unless their specific nationality is known) and Hindu is used to refer to the religion (if relevant, and often inaccurately), or the language.
    – danch
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 21:07
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    It is now more common (in the UK) to refer to 'Native Americans' and thus leave 'Indian' to mean someone from India. I think there is common understanding in the UK of Hindu being religion and Hindi being language. Only ignorant people will refer to Indians and Pakistanis indiscriminately as 'Asian', in my own experience.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 21:25
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    @ranban282 The 'Hindu accent' thing I wouldn't be surprised to hear either, though I'd personally cringe. It would probably be used to describe the accent of any south Asian, regardless of mother tongue. Why it can't simply be an 'accent', in the rare case that it's relevant at all, I'm not sure. The Barbie doll is officially 'India Barbie'. There is a separate Diwali Barbie, as well.
    – danch
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 21:49
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    Just to make sure it's clear: In North America the term "Indian", without any qualifier, was pretty much universally used to refer to "Native Americans" and their related languages, customs, and territories from 1492 until 1950, at which time the transition to "American Indian" and then "Native American" slowly began. That transition is far from complete, and if you say "Indian" in the US, without some contextual clues, your listener is almost certain to be unsure which culture you are referencing.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 21, 2018 at 23:06
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    I have never heard that Hindu and Hindi in AmE are the same. Hindu is the religion and Hindi is the language and if they are being used interchangeably by "Americans", I have never heard that. Of course, AmE are notoriously ignorant of geography etc. [I am American, therefore, I can insult my fellow "countrypeople" as I see it.:)]. I disagree with the first comment here 100%. The people I know and speak to would not make that mistake. But those that would make that mistake, would make a number of other similar mistakes as well.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 24, 2018 at 13:44

3 Answers 3

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In a comment, HotLicks wrote:

Just to make sure it's clear: In North America the term "Indian", without any qualifier, was pretty much universally used to refer to "Native Americans" and their related languages, customs, and territories from 1492 until 1950, at which time the transition to "American Indian" and then "Native American" slowly began. That transition is far from complete, and if you say "Indian" in the US, without some contextual clues, your listener is almost certain to be unsure which culture you are referencing.

Let me add that for people who have Native Americans living among them, or who have a reservation close by, the word Indian, absent other indicators, will naturally be taken to mean the people whom they’re close to in their common experience of everyday life.

The British “do not do this” for several reasons. First, they have a long association with India; America does not. Second, America has a long association with “Cowboys and Indians”; Britain does not.

Here from Politico is the normal context of the word Indian in these American lands:

“It’s very troublesome,” said Caitrin McCarron Shuy of the National Indian Health Board, noting that Native Americans suffer from the nation’s highest drug overdose death rates, among other health concerns. “There’s high unemployment in Indian country, and it's going to create a barrier to accessing necessary Medicaid services.”

Native Americans’ unemployment rate of 12 percent in 2016 was nearly three times the U.S. average, partly because jobs are scarce on reservations. Low federal spending on the Indian Health Service has also left tribes dependent on Medicaid to fill coverage gaps.

“Without supplemental Medicaid resources, the Indian health system will not survive,” W. Ron Allen — a tribal leader who chairs CMS’ Tribal Technical Advisory Group — warned Verma in a Feb. 14 letter.

As you see, Indian already means something here. You wouldn’t want people to get confused.

I know you will find this hard to believe or perhaps sympathize with, and that it will unfairly make you think less of us, but most Americans know very little about Asia let alone India, except that it is a huge and inconceivably distant place.

They have no contact with it and so have no need for nuanced terms. They often cannot tell you what “South Asian” even means in the sense that you are using it, and plenty still say “Oriental” for what you might use East Asian or Southeast Asian for. Remember they also are unlikely to know the difference between Sikh and Muslim and Hindu.

India simply isn’t a place that we have historically had much reason to think about. If you asked someone from Yuma or Reno whether they thought Calcutta or Ceylon were closer to eight or ten thousand miles away, number one they would have no idea, and number two, they wouldn’t blanch at those names the way you just have. :)

When there’s already a particular word for something, it’s only natural to pick a different word for something that’s completely different. I’m not saying this is “right”; it’s just what happens. I would never suggest that someone use “a Hindu” to mean a person from any of the countries of the Indian Subcontinent, nor would I do so myself. The question only asked for why people might do so, or might have done so in the past, so that’s what I’ve tried to explain.


Related

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  • Thanks for this, but is that why people use 'Hindu' when they mean Indian or South Asian? Why can't they use the term South Asian, when they talk about things like dress, language or customs?
    – ranban282
    Commented Apr 22, 2018 at 20:05
  • @ranban282 Why do you think they would know what “South Asian” the way you are using it means to you? They wouldn’t. I've updated my answer to try to explain.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 2:25
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    @tchrist - I'd have to say that I don't typically regard people from India as being "Asian". To the Midwest American eye they appear to be more closely related to Eastern Mediterranean folks.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 2:39
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    @ranban282 - Consider the on-going awkwardness of citizens of the USA being referred to as "Americans". It works OK in England, but not so much in Brazil. And "Norte Americano" may convey the right meaning in Argentina, but not so much in Mexico or Canada. (And then there's the whole issue of what to call the crazy people on those tiny islands just west of Germany.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2018 at 11:56
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    Crazily enough, we can't use the terms "East Indian" and "West Indian" to distinguish between "people of the subcontinent of India" and "aboriginal peoples of North America" because the "East Indies" refers in large part to the former Dutch colonial area of Indonesia, and "West Indies" to the Caribbean islands.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 6:05
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A brief etymological note:

You already mentioned the common origin of several words. I don't know about inside of India, but outside, the word has referred to a geographical region for a long time.

Etymonline has it that hindu in English dates from around the

1660s, from Persian Hindu (adjective and noun) "Indian," from Hind "India," from Sanskrit sindhu "river," meaning here the Indus; hence "region of the Indus," the sense then gradually was extended by invading peoples to encompass all northern India. "Properly, one of the native race in India descended from the Aryan conquerors. ... More loosely, the name includes also the non-Aryan inhabitants of India" [Century Dictionary, 1902]. As an adjective from 1690s. The Hindu Kush mountain range is said to mean literally "Indian killer," and was said to have been the name given by the Persians to a pass where their Indian slaves had perished in winter, but this likely is folk etymology.

And a (tangential) note of personal experience:

The phenomenon is not only found in American English: I've worked in a South Chilean hardware store (where we speak American Spanish) for the last five years, and have paid close attention to the origins of the ironmongery there. In Chile, importers have found that India has good stuff cheap, possibly due to the relaxed worker protection laws there. I have found that some of the best quality/price ratios in the "quincallería" (hinges and latches) sections of hardware import/distributors here have many Indian products, as well as leather products (gloves, work aprons and welder protection clothing). In the catalogues, these are almost invariably referred to as being "indú" in origin.

As a native North American, when I first heard this usage, I was also confused, having had the impression that "Hindu" referred to a religion, as other commenters on OP have also said; and I could not understand why South Americans should want religious work-clothing, nor why the religious Hindus themselves should be making leather objects in the first place. However, from what I have been able to ascertain (by a sort of linguistic osmosis mostly), the word "Hindú" in these catalogues (and in casual speech) refers exclusively to a geographical region, leading me to believe that the Persians lent their usage to Western Europe and from there to the Americas.

Conclusion

You said:

...whereas it should only refer to the Hindu religion, or Hinduism.

I generally make an effort to be sensitive to offenses that others may take at the words I use, especially with regards to national origins. But in my town there are no Indians, and I don't even know any in the next town, although there may be some. And the usage of "Hindu" here is not meant to be offensive at all; it is simply the name given to anything that comes from India in general. I guess that the Persians (and other invading peoples) did not particularly care whether they were offensive or not, and the rest of the world simply followed suit.

So "should only refer to..." seems a bit strong; unless the usage actually is offensive, I will probably keep using it in America, because of its established (by use) meaning. And I hope that someone who could take offense would also write an answer here, explaining their side.

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This phenomenon is neither recent nor strictly "American." The "Americans" got it from the British, back when a more common Anglicized spelling was "Hindoo."

For example:

This spelling was used up to the mid-20th century:

It also appeared in the US:

In all of these cases, the word is used to indicate something related to or originating from India, regardless of language or religion.

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